Annual conference focuses on public health

It was a tsunami of trinkets, baubles and tchotchkes. Dozens of vendor tables were cheek by jowl along three walls of the cavernous Discovery Ballroom in Anchorage's Hotel Captain Cook. Freebies included water bottles, lip balm, pens, coffee mugs, pamphlets, refrigerator magnets and round flexible things about the size of a large pancake used to open difficult jars. A friend of mine calls them "rubber husbands."

This was the annual meeting of the Alaska Public Health Association (ALPHA), Jan. 16-18. "What exactly is public health?" you might reasonably ask. According to the national organization, the American Public Health Association (APHA):

Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.

Given the focus of public health on prevention and wellness, insiders note with a wink that a successful day in the life of a public health professional is when nothing happens.

AARP had a major presence at the conference as both financial donor and vendor with a table positioned at the front of the ballroom right next to the main entrance. I grabbed Ken Helander, Advocacy Director for AARP Alaska, for a brief interview. I asked him why AARP had such a prominent presence at the ALPHA conference. He responded: "This conference, as I understand it-and I listened to the planners and I looked over the agenda -is made up of the latest issues of public health. Of course, public health affects all of us. Public health is one of the most important things for all of us to be healthy because it involves the environment in which we live through sanitation, clean water and air, proper housing, and the avoidance of violence. In so many ways public health has to happen before anything else happens. So that's who these [public health professionals] are. It's important to me that they consider what all this means for older people."

On the second day of the conference, the opening plenary session was an excellent presentation titled "Accelerating the Pace of Change in Providing Alaska's Network of Long Term Services and Supports." The presenter was Elaine M. Ryan, a Vice President from National AARP. I asked her what is the most important idea Alaska seniors should take away from her discussion: "I would say that the most important thing is to know that Alaska is making progress. When AARP looked at all the states in the country, Alaska ranked number five in terms of the top states to deliver long-term services and supports, so that should be heartening to Alaskans. At the same time I think that Alaskans need some areas for improvement in housing, affordability of services, and expanded respite care services-a break for family caregivers. Those pieces are critical to be able to move forward in Alaska and to be able to reverse those numbers where they are on the lower end of the spectrum of services."

"For people who may be caregivers or in need of care," Ryan continued, "I think what's most important is to understand and ask for help. Understand the new law that took effect last year here for family caregivers and for anyone going into the hospital. Understand that they can get instructions for medical tasks."

About 240 public health professionals and others registered for the conference, which was the second-best turnout in the past 35 years. There were 51 sessions on a wide range of topics that attendees could choose from. These included topics as diverse as "Progress Toward Water and Sanitation for All Alaskans," "Providing Care to Transgender/Gender Non-Conforming Patients," and "Public Health in Correctional Facilities."

One of the presentations I enjoyed the most was "Learning from those who do it best: Lessons on how to age successfully from Alaska Native Elders in NW Alaska." This was presented by Jordan P. Lewis, Director, National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders, and several other researchers. This was a study of 41 elders in five communities around Norton Sound.

One theme that arose in the research was "resisting discourses of frailty." One elder expressed it this way: "Well, you get the doors opened for you and carry the box from the post office, even if it's light as a feather. [Chuckles] Stop, and can't even take a walk and exercise – somebody picks you up – so – [Laughter] – you have to go out of town to exercise."

Visit the Alaska Public Health Association website,, for more information about presentations at the conference.

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

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